Category: Society

Prof. Tan Sri Dr. Sharifah Hapsah

Prof. Emerita Dr. Sharifah Hapsah

As can be inferred by the many titles Prof. Emerita Tan Sri Dr. Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin has to her name, she is one who has achieved much professionally. And these don’t include her postgraduate qualifications, including a master’s and doctorate. Yet Prof. Emerita Dr. Sharifah Hapsah is surprisingly dismissive when talking about her accomplishments. The younger generation will never know what it is like to be a pioneer, I say, referring to her appointment as the first female vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

“They can achieve other things,” she tells me matter-of-factly.

Prof. Emerita Dr. Sharifah Hapsah assumed the position of VC at UKM in 2006, a year that saw two women ascend to the position of VC for the first time. The other was Tan Sri Rafiah Salim who became the VC of Universiti Malaya (UM).

Prior to that, she held the office of chairperson and CEO of the State Accreditation Agency (LAN), overseeing the charter of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA). In addition, she was the President of the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) from 2014-2016.

And yet, it apparently wasn’t ambition that was the driving force behind her achieving these positions. Instead, she attributes it to the deceptively simplistic attribute of striving for the best in whatever that you do. “Not position,” she says when I asked what motivated her in her early years, “but I wanted to be the best.”

That coupled with the fact that she was single-minded in her decisions is what she attributes to her many credentials.“ Once you have made the decision to do something, you must go forward with focus and determination along that path,” she says in a forthright manner.

You cannot make a decision, then become unsure. Then you have to turn back and then you can’t go very far.

Prof. Emerita Dr. Sharifah Hapsah

Professor got her first test early on when she was still a student. Prior to going to university, the prospect of studying law proved to be quite appealing. But being placed in the science stream meant that medicine became the natural choice.

“When you meet certain grades, things are more or less decided for you and for me it was medicine,” she explains. “When you enter medical school, you must make the choice that you must graduate well and do your best.”

“It was a big thing in those days,” she says. “It was a class of very competitive people. You have to work hard and discipline yourself to really be in the top 10 percent of the class.”

Disciplined she was. As a student, her evenings were not spent watching TV but in the library organising her notes. There was also an element of competitiveness that was expressed playfully.

“My friends and I used to have these games where we would try to outdo each other over afternoon tea,” she says with a laugh. “We would ask each other very detailed questions like ‘name the layers of the retina’, but it means you have to study to know.” For the academic, knowledge is key and it is something that she continued to amass as life progressed.

Once Professor embarked on her medical career, she was soon faced with making another decision that would alter her path. Practising medicine didn’t seem to be all that engaging for her. Added to that was the fact that her newly born son needed her at the time. As a result, Prof. Dr. Sharifah Hapsah decided to move to academia and pursue a non-clinical course instead, despite having already enrolled to do the MRCP.

“I became a lecturer in Physiology but again when you do that you still have to do your best, you cannot do it half-heartedly,” she says. “When I started teaching, I began to wonder what was the best way to do it. That is when I got interested in medical education.”

Once the decision had been made, Dr. Sharifah Hapsah delved into the subject matter obtaining her Master’s degree in Medical Education before pursuing her PhD.

“To go far in anything you must have mastery of knowledge,” she stresses. “Once you have gone in one direction, you must continue to add value to what you are doing. In medical education, I became interested in quality.”

Quality education, she says, is very important because it focuses on the idea of teachers doing their best for students. In medicine, she adds, this is essential.

Dr. Sharifah Hapsah then went on to study quality assurance systems from various countries – Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US. Knowledge of those systems was then used to develop the MQA and from there, came the appointment as VC of UKM.

News that she would be assuming the position was greeted with much enthusiasm, seen as a significant step towards gender equality. Dr. Sharifah Hapsah, however, is pretty nonchalant about it. In fact, her immediate reaction at the time was to ask for a postponement as the MQA bill was about to be presented in Parliament.

As VC, gender was never an issue, coming into play only to ensure that the 30 percent gender target for management should be met.

“I went beyond that,” she says. “It is not based on gender as such but on merit. And I discovered that based on merit, I can go beyond 30 percent. I had two female deputy VCs, that is 50 percent.”

As VC, Dr. Sharifah Hapsah is credited with taking UKM to an international level, developing a transformation programme for the university, introducing the commercialisation of research and initiating innovative programmes for human capital development. During her tenure there was also a strengthening of community engagements.

“My job was to bring everyone together and push them in one direction. That is the goal we wanted for UKM,” she says. “If we agreed on that goal, then my job was to prepare the governance and the facilities and infrastructure that would support it. We must be known internationally. That is the highest in academia.”

Symbolism was used to communicate this idea. The seagull was used to depict the university soaring upwards.

“It is not a bird of prey and flies far–fly high and fly far. We used a lot of metaphors to make people understand what we are doing.”

Dr. Sharifah Hapsah also shifted her attention towards child development, working to develop the Permata programme.

Aside from that, there is also the NCWO, in which Professor has played a significant part. The organisation is now in the midst of organising things at a state level to ensure that there is a solid umbrella body to communicate and receive feedback as well as to understand what women are thinking at the ground level.

“There are a lot of good policies and projects that women on the ground don’t even know about.”

To the younger women of today, Dr. Sharifah Hapsah reminds that it is important to remember that previous generations of women paved the way for them.

“Sometimes they forget older women fought for them, but you have to continue that struggle. The struggle is not over, especially when there are groups that try to pull women back,” she says. “If we are not careful, you can be pulled backwards by these kinds of forces. The first victims will always be women and children.”

Davina Devarajan & Arissa Jemaima Ikram

Davina Devarajan & Arissa Jemaima Ikram Prestige Malaysia

Everyone talks about making a change in the world, but very few actually walk the talk. Davina Devarajan, 26, armed with a background in law from the University of London and a stint with Undi 18 as programme associate, and Arissa Jemaima Ikram, 24, a bright undergraduate in international relations and law, are the two inspiring young women who are the founders of Women for Refugees. 

The grassroots movement which was set up last year and recently acquired NGO status, aims to upskill and empower marginalised and refugee women into taking up income and community building initiatives. 

Having been actively involved in several other NGOs such as UNHCR, Mercy Malaysia, KAKAK Organisation, ASEAN Cares Foundation and Eco Knights, the pair met via Instagram over their mutual desire to help the refugee community. 

“We started off with conversations with each other exploring important issues that were happening in Malaysia,” says Arissa. 

“We realised there were a lot of fundamental problems when it came to the refugees in Malaysia,” adds Davina. “Such as Malaysia not signing the Refugee Convention, we realised how hard it is to make a policy change, so we floated around the idea and volunteered with many other organisations.” 

Davina and Arissa realised that there were a lot of refugee women who wanted opportunities but weren’t given any. Thus that was the spark that ignited their desire to start something on their own, which specifically aims to help refugee women. 

Starting out with small initiatives and literacy programmes with refugee women allowed Davina and Arissa to pivot and establish their mission and vision for their movement, and secure a team of 20 volunteers. 

The Refugee Women Entrepreneurship Programme (RWEP) is their main pillar focused on upskilling women on literacy in English and Bahasa Malaysia. 

The next phase introduces entrepreneurship, business and leadership skills, while the final phase provides mentorship and training in the execution of their initiatives. 

“We currently have 20 women of various ages actively participating in our programme and are estimated to graduate by mid this year,” shares Davina. 

“Because we are based in Selayang, we believe in solidifying community per community. Once we have established this group with our programme, we will move on to the next refugee community,” says Arissa. 

Since Women for Refugees was started during the MCO, the operations had to very quickly shift from face-to-face interactions to digital. This, shares the two, was another obstacle they managed to overcome. 

“At first it was very difficult for the women to adapt. So we had to figure out a way to meet them in the middle,” says Arissa. 

“But we did find that they were very enthusiastic to learn. It was actually a request from the women to teach them digital literacy skills,” adds Davina. 

For the time being, Women for Refugees work closely following the SOPs, and have two people at a time equipped with a laptop that go over to the community to run the classes. 

Some of the other challenges of working with refugee women, says the pair, is setting up a time frame for the completion of the programme. 

What was initially set out to be a four- week programme, ends up being a six-month one. However, they realised that they needed to be more flexible with their time, as every individual woman has their own rate of understanding the programme. 

Despite this, the pair states that seeing the women eventually take on bigger roles due to the confidence and skills gained during the programme, is indescribably rewarding. 

“There has been an obvious change with the women. Initially they were quieter when we first started, but week-by-week we see their personalities start to show, and they’ve actually become more outspoken in asking us to teach them in areas they are interested in,” says Davina. 

There has been an obvious change with the women. Initially they were quieter when we first started, but week-by-week we see their personalities start to show, and they’ve actually become more outspoken in asking us to teach them in areas they are interested in. 

Davina Devarajan

“We never had to force them to participate and now they’ve taken up leadership positions in their community. Where previously their leader was a male, now it is a woman who is leading and organising community initiatives,” reveals Davina. 

Aside from education, Women for Refugees also aids in humanitarian initiatives. Their Food for Thought initiative sees to the supply of food, sanitation and basic necessities for the refugees in light of the recent pandemic. 

Then there is The Comfort Project, where Women for Refugees takes on medical cases relating to refugee patients and engages in crowdfunding to pay for treatments. 

Thus far, Women for Refugees has helped provide basic necessities to over 80 families and raised funding for medical expenses to eight patients in just a matter of months. 

When it comes to finances, the team runs purely on donations for now, but they are looking towards applying for grants to enable them to run programmes more sustainably and for the long term. 

Speaking of long-term goals, Davina and Arissa are aiming to raise funds to establish an educational facility within the Selayang area. This would accommodate the rising numbers of child refugees and provide them with the fundamental right to education, as well as run their RWEP initiatives in a properly equipped environment. 

“Our projects are aligned in hopes to prove the economic benefits of recognising refugee status on a policy level in Malaysia,” says Davina. “We want to see more refugee women have the opportunity to run their own businesses, and we see ourselves as an empowerment body to provide them with the skills they need.” 

Rekha Sen

Rekha Sen Prestige Malaysia

For over a decade now Rekha Sen has had to endure a difficult process in trying to secure Malaysian citizenship for her children that has involved making numerous trips, letters and calls to Putrajaya. Her experience is not the exception but the norm for Malaysian women who are married to non-Malaysian men, whose children are born abroad. The experience, however, is quite different if you are a Malaysian man married to a foreigner. In those circumstances, the child is automatically given Malaysian citizenship. 

It is not “discrimination,” Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Mohamed Said stated when asked in Parliament if the government planned to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) Committee’s recommendation to ensure that women have the same rights as men with regard to citizenship, especially in conferring nationality to their children born abroad to foreign spouses. 

According to Cedaw Article 9(2), “state parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children. The deputy minister said that the government had agreed to retain its reservation on Cedaw Article 9(2), adding that it was a “question of security and sovereignty.” 

“I would have preferred a statement telling it like it is,” retorts Sen.

That gender discrimination is openly practised and women are not entitled to the same rights. Why say it any other way?

Rekha Sen

The statement dealt a blow to women already frustrated by an ambiguous process who had hoped for a different response. With no other avenue available to them, six women made the bold decision to file a suit, seeking a declaration that Malaysian women married to foreigners have the right under the Federal Constitution for their overseas-born children to be given Malaysian citizenship. 

“This isn’t a new problem,” says Sen, who is one of the six women. “It has been going on for decades. The women behind the various organisations fighting for equality have exhausted almost every avenue via talks with the government and the media but little change has been made. This is another way to reach out to have our voices heard and hopefully address this.” 

Power and politics, she adds, has unfortunately played a significant role and though each administration may present a different set of rules, no decision has yet been made. 

“As citizens, we bear the brunt,” she states. “This isn’t a new story.” 

The issue, to her, is one that has to do with basic human rights. As a Malaysian, Sen believes it is her right to confer her citizenship to her children. 

“Why shouldn’t it be so?” she asks. “I contribute equally, pay the same taxes as my male counterparts so why am I not extended the same opportunities?” 

She regards it as also being an act of discrimination against the children. Why are some children treated as being more deserving than others? 

“Who gave anyone the right to choose and decide that?” she questions. 

At present, the application process is arbitrary. Three to 10 years appears to be norm and the decision seems to be discretionary. There are no guidelines in place on what requirements are needed for a potential approval nor any explanations for rejection. Sen’s own experience exemplifies this. 

“In my case I received an approval for my eldest but rejections for my younger two. No reasons were given after waiting for an answer for almost five years for my youngest. My middle child was rejected in 2015 and his case is still under appeal.” 

Situations like these have resulted in many families facing numerous challenges that have placed them under duress. Families being separated, children becoming stateless while many don’t have access to health and education as they reside as foreigners in Malaysia are just some examples. 

“Those abroad live with the constant anxiety of not being able to return or not having access to their children in some cases,” she explains. “To add to the complexity, Malaysia doesn’t allow dual citizenship so many abroad have no choice but to eventually give up their Malaysian citizenship in favour of their spouse’s to be with their children.” 

To critics who say that Sen’s children aren’t living in Malaysia and therefore don’t need Malaysian citizenship, her answer is straightforward. 

“It’s an argument I might be able to accept if the men in my position were also required to apply via Article 15(2) for their children born abroad,” she quips. “I would further argue that they have never been given the fair chance to live in Malaysia. As long as they are not granted citizenship, my children will always be considered foreigners in Malaysia. To me and the tens of thousands in my position, Malaysia has closed her doors to us and returning permanently is not an option.” 

The Second Schedule, Part III of Article 15 (2) states that Malaysian women with overseas born children will obtain citizenship by registration for their children. This, however, is said to contradict Article 8 of the Federal Constitution which states that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law. 

The suit challenges Article 14 (1)(b), read with the Second Schedule, Part II which allows the passing down of Malaysian citizenship by “operation of law” only if the father is Malaysian. Malaysia is one of 25 countries in the world to still uphold this law and only one of two in Asia. 

The legal process is going to be a long one, she concedes, but she is prepared for arduous journey ahead. 

“There is no time like the present to get the ball rolling and I am in it for the long run,” she states. “The battle for equality will not be an easy one. I am not misdirected with my expectations where timelines and outcomes are concerned but I do believe it will happen.” 

While the goal of the lawsuit is to win, that is only half the battle for Sen. For her, the real win comes when people recognise that they have the power to make a change. 

Collectively our voices can be heard. The fight for human rights and equality isn’t an easy one. What we are really trying to change is mind-sets and this will take time.

Rekha Sen

As our perspectives evolve, she stresses that it is imperative that our culture, laws and systems evolve as well. Change is already happening and the question should no longer be “if” there is change but “when.” 

“We can all choose to take action now and be a part of history that was willing to break barriers and make the changes needed or we can continue to choose to look away and leave it to the next person or the next administration to do the right thing,” she states. “I am hopeful that we can collectively stop seeing the world through a divisive lens. Together, I believe we can make the change we need – for our children, for you, for me, for all of us.” 

Omna Sreeni-Ong

“Gender equality drives our efforts,” declares Omna Sreeni-Ong, whose social enterprise Engender Consultancy boasts a business model which includes the undertaking of social impact initiatives. It is a “model that is gaining recognition as the future of business,” she adds. The journey of the veteran of 25 years in women’s movement and gender equality advocacy started off at the fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 where she was part of the Baha’i community’s delegation to Beijing. The conference birthed the Beijing Platform for Action, a global roadmap for the advancement of gender equality.

Omna also chaired the Youth Commission of the National Council of Women’s Organisations and later served as its honorary secretary general. Through advocacy where she worked hand in hand with various joint civil society organisations, it “strengthened my understanding of the national landscape on gender equality, human rights and development, and uncovered structural and systemic challenges that continue to be impediments in the advancement of gender equality, causing discrimination and inequalities to persist,” she says, sowing the seeds for Engender Consultancy, which brings together the government, civil society and communities to advance gender equality. Omna lets us in on their work. 

What are some of Engender’s initiatives and what impacts were created? 

We are a fairly new organisation having been in operation since 2019. At the outset, it was important for us to reflect on how we can support and add value to the work that is already being done by the many organisations in the gender equality movement across the country. “Advancing gender equality: transforming communities” is not merely our tagline; it is embedded in the ethos that defines the way we work. 

Inspired by the way the hummingbird reaches deep into a blossom to source its nectar, we endeavour to go to the root of issues; to read the lived realities of people and uncover core concerns. Then through collaborative and consultative engagements, we draw on the critical experience and learning of the communities we work with to develop transformative, sustainable solutions. 

Guided by this philosophy we work on several social impact initiatives which are currently underway. I’ll mention three of these impact initiatives here:

• Gender Lens on the Budget, which adopts a gender responsive scrutiny of the national budget cycle process to ensure equitable distribution of allocations which respond appropriately to the needs of different population groups. In this initiate, we work with government, civil society and legislators.

• SafeCity: Addressing Sexual Harassment in Public Spaces, which is a campaign that evolved from a nationwide survey we conducted in 2020 which found that from the 654 respondents, 59% reported having experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. The survey was able to identify cities across Malaysia where incidents of sexual harassment in public spaces had taken place. Engender and our partner Sisterhood Alliance are also national partners of the SafeCity Malaysia, which uses the SafeCity App that crowdsources anonymous personal stories or experiences of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces and aggregates it as hot spots. We use the data to work with local governments, residents’ associations, the private sector and the community to create safe public spaces, free from sexual harassment for all.

• Mainstreaming Gender Responsive Approach in Localising the SDGs in Parliamentary Constituencies, which is an initiative that is undertaken for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (SDGs), Malaysia to ensure all its SDG projects across its participating parliamentary constituencies are gender responsive, that is, to ensure our work with the communities promote equal participation and fair distribution of benefits, shared power, control of resources, decision-making, and support for women’s empowerment. 

We are clear that in order to bring about any kind of sustainable change we need to engender people, policies and processes through strategic, collaborative and transformative solutions. 

What sort of partnership and cooperative efforts do you hope to see in the advocacy of gender equality?
Gender equality, economists and development experts say, is the catalyst and accelerator which will ensure the achievement of all developmental goals. There is a growing consciousness that empowering and investing in women and girls have a multiplier effect on the well-being of families, community and society. Now more than ever we need a whole of society approach to tackle the gains lost due to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, girls and vulnerable groups. Women’s organisations and other civil society actors have formed coalitions to strengthen the advocacy for gender equality – but that is not sufficient. What we need is meaningful and institutionalised government and civil society partnerships at policy tables to ensure that gender is mainstreamed in all areas of legislation, policy, implementation, monitoring and impact. 

Gender equality drives our efforts

Omna Sreeni-Ong

What roles can men play in establishing equality? 

There is a misconception that gender equality is a women’s issue; when in fact gender equality benefits both men and women. While women are disproportionately affected by gender inequality, men too face gender specific issues such as unhealthy stereotypes, poor health, falling behind in education and lack of paternity benefits. Gender equality is everyone’s business – every man, woman, youth and child has an integral part to play in fostering an environment where every person can reach their potential. 

Studies have shown that men living in highly gender equal societies have a better quality of life than men in less gender equal societies. Men’s participation in the home – taking on shared responsibilities alone has an effect on society as a whole. The balance is shifting and we are seeing more young families who are exemplifying gender equality in taking on shared roles at home and the way they raise their children. However, this emerging revolution can only have a ripple effect with deliberate gender responsive strategies in policies, education and public awareness which engage all of society. 

As a woman, do you feel the extra impetus to strive for the betterment of other women? One of the greatest gifts of working on promoting gender equality is learning how to view the world through a gender lens. It allows me to recognise the social and economic realities of people from the home to society as determined by power relations between women and men. It reveals the unfavourable treatment of individuals based on their gender. We know that women have been disproportionately impacted suffering discrimination, oppression, violence and exclusion. This reality and the recognition of the promise of gender equality propels and motivates me to support, uplift and empower my fellow sisters but also to support men, boys and families as a whole to play their role in fostering gender equality – our work is not done till no one is left behind. 

Your message to anyone for this International Women’s Day?
This International Women’s Day let us women and men, boys and girls choose to challenge ourselves in how we exemplify attitudes and behaviour that foster gender equality in our personal lives and in the lives of our families. The power of change lies in our conscious effort to take deliberate steps. Let it be this generation. 

Juliana Adam

Juliana Adam heads the country’s pioneering social enterprise, Biji-Biji Initiative. Founded in 2013 to transform sustainability efforts through progressive ideas, the organisation intends on changing how people view waste and sustainability issues. Turning the planet greener though isn’t the only subject matter Biji-Biji is fervent about; gender equality and uplifting the lives of the marginalised communities are part of its agenda. 

“We have an equal ratio of women to men in the top and senior management teams, both genders having an equal say to the other in decision making,” Juliana opens up on Biji-Biji’s internal structure, emphasising that gender, race and other backgrounds bear no influence on the person’s role within the organisation. In fact, she adds, they offer a fair distribution of maternity and paternity leave to both parents. This, she says, is because men and women have varying needs and it helps ensure both parents are afforded an equal chance to accomplish their tasks, without having to worry about work matters. 

Through its programmes, Biji-Biji has improved the lives of many living on the peripheries of society. By working with the underprivileged across various backgrounds such as women in the B40 segment, they have provided better employment and income sources to these beneficiaries. The children of these beneficiaries consequently benefit from this improvement. 

“One of our makers, who has been with us from the beginning, managed to put his daughter through school and she is set to graduate from university. She is also the first child in the family to receive education and is able to speak English fluently,” Juliana shares, citing that being able to extend opportunities to those who would otherwise be left behind, is one of the biggest satisfactions in her journey with Biji-Biji. 

She further discloses that 56% of their total participants are women. Just as importantly, however, Biji-Biji is Malaysia’s first World Fair Trade Organisation guaranteed member, thus a practitioner of fair wages. This practice allows members of the underprivileged communities who provide their products and services to Biji-Biji Initiatives “to be valued equally, to not be exploited, and for me, personally, it gives them the confidence and dignity that they too deserve to be treated and rewarded fairly,” Juliana says, explaining that they educate their corporate clients that the money they spend on Biji-Biji’s programmes holds far greater meaning than just monetary value. 

“We feel that, as movers and pioneers, we have the power to pave the way towards making a change, and through enabling more vulnerable, female participants into our programmes,” Juliana says, adding that some of their programmes are specifically catered to single mothers with the objective of equipping them with necessary skills to improve their livelihoods. “We are not only allowing them an opportunity to grow, but also to get other larger organisations to follow suit.” 

One aspect hampering women from the marginalised communities from progress, according to Juliana, is their mindset, stemming from consistently being told that they must be reliant on their male counterparts. Often it is a cycle that travels through generations. “Imagine, at a young age, you are told to not dream because you will never achieve it because you are a woman, and at that, you are a woman from a ‘poor’ community?” 

“The help that they need is the fair chance to succeed and not to be shot down just because they are women from an underprivileged background,” Juliana says, adding that many a time, what these women need is a healthy dose of encouragement and belief that they can control their own narratives and that they hold the power to drive change in their lives. 

Also, believe in your own rights to be given a fair and equal opportunity. If you don’t see it for yourself, how do you expect any change to come externally? 

Juliana Adam

As a female CEO, Juliana places a strong impetus upon herself to empower other women. She voices frustrations at statements such as how women have certain roles to play or they can only go so far due to their gender. “It absolutely frustrates me, especially hearing it from other women,” says Juliana. 

In championing fair opportunities for women, Juliana shares, “it empowers them psychologically.” And through empowerment, they grow to become confident and assertive in the pursuit of their goals. 

“All this and more is important, I believe, because these women will transfer these positive attributes to their children and dependents, instilling the same values in them, and ultimately this will be the change that will be brought to the world,” says Juliana. 

The Prestige Malaysia 40 Under 40 alumna believes women’s values are a perfect complement to those of men. “Both need the other to work out the best results. And just simply with this in mind, wouldn’t you think gender equality, providing fair opportunities to both, is important?” Juliana delivers her message for this International Women’s Day. 

Rozana Isa

Rozana Isa Prestige Malaysia IWD 2021

Even though Rozana Isa ventured down the path of women’s rights advocacy 22 years ago, she humbly states that she isn’t a pioneer. “Since before Merdeka, women’s rights activists have been around when they struggled alongside men for independence from the British,” she enlightens, listing names who helped achieve milestones such as equal pay, permanent jobs and pensions for women. However, she also acknowledges that there is still much to strive for, for women to be recognised as equals in law and practice in Malaysia. It was the same mindset that led her to wanting “to be a part of something that would bring change, that would make a difference,” she says. Rozana proceeds to explain some of the challenges faced by the country’s Muslim women. 

We are such a unique society with different races. Are there unique challenges faced by Muslim women not experienced by others?

Women in Malaysia face many challenges, that is the premise that we all should begin with regardless of our ethnicities, faith, the status of our education and economy. Domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, discrimination on the grounds of gender, for example, cut across our diverse backgrounds. When there is a violation or transgression on those grounds, there are laws, or there should be laws, that apply to us as equals, as Malaysian citizens. At the same time, there are also many women, men and children who do not have rights under Malaysian laws because they are not citizens. They include migrants and stateless people; some even married or are born to Malaysians. 

However, we also have parallel legal systems in Malaysia. Personal laws for Muslims in marriage, divorce, custody, and maintenance, to mention a few, fall under the Islamic Family Law of each state in Malaysia, which are mostly similar with some differences from one to the other. In this area of rights in the family, Muslim women differ from women of other faiths. For example, Muslim women do not have the same right to guardianship of their children as non- Muslim women; they only have custodial rights that the court grants; guardianship rights remain with the Muslim father. Another example is in inheritance, where non-Muslim women can receive an equal inheritance as their male siblings. Muslim women receive less inheritance than their male siblings as they have the duty and responsibility to care for their sisters. However, in today’s context, this form of inheritance needs to be reviewed because our lived realities have changed. Women are more than capable of managing their own lives, including financial responsibilities and obligations. In other words, Muslim women face the challenge of being recognised as equals with Muslim men and Malaysian women of other faiths. 

Religion is a complex and sensitive topic in this country. Do you think this hinders the opportunities of us having open discussions which could lead to better outcomes for Muslim women? 

We need to realise that, for as long as religion is a source of law and policymaking in Malaysia, everyone has a right to speak about it. If we give up our space to raise our concerns, then the dominant voice will continue to determine rights that we should have or not and the kinds of laws and practices that we should have or not in Malaysia. More often, what we are raising concerns about is how religious authorities, institutions and figures are interpreting religion for the rest of us. So, it is not religion that we are dealing with but the systems and structures and the people in and around them. We need to learn how to engage in how these authorities and institutions are impacting us and how we live as a diverse society instead of avoiding it altogether. 

Can you tell us about your work with Sisters in Islam? What were some of the initiatives and impacts created?
The core of our work is to bring reform to Muslim family law and practice in Malaysia. We engage with activists and scholars, conduct research and public discussions, and raise awareness to Muslim women and single mothers about their rights in the family. We engage with students and youth on contemporary issues affecting Muslim communities, including gender identities and sexualities and addressing various religious extremism issues. Through Telenisa, our legal helpline and clinic we provide free legal advice to women and men about rights under the Islamic family laws and how to access these rights in the Syariah Courts, including the courts’ processes and procedures. During the pandemic in 2020, Sisters in Islam conducted 29 online sessions over 33 weeks reaching out to over 82,000 people on various issues on Muslim women’s rights in the family, their lived realities and experiences at the time. SIS also conducted a series of international public forums to address France’s terror attacks and bring in the Muslim world’s conversations and responses. 

Sisters in Islam’s most profound achievement is to expand the space for public debate and discussion on Islam and women’s rights. SIS’s impact is not only felt and experienced in Malaysia but also in Muslim contexts globally. Many other Muslim women, individuals and groups, also, struggle to advance Muslim women’s rights in their communities and contexts. In 2009, Sisters in Islam initiated and launched Musawah, the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. What began as a study group in 1987 comprising eight women who are journalists, artists, activists, lawyers and academics is now a global movement of women and men who advocate for progressive Muslim family law reforms. 

As a Muslim woman, do you feel there is an impetus for you to strive for other Muslim women?
What drives me is the knowledge that Islam stands for equality and justice. Yet, laws, policies, and institutions made in Islam’s name don’t necessarily provide women with that experience. Other people will not make these changes and hand it over to us on a silver platter. We have to demand and act for that change to happen. 

What progress have we made to advance the rights of Muslim women? What areas do you think the government or religious bodies can improve? 

There has been some progress for Muslim women. While they still don’t have guardianship rights, there have been administrative reforms for Muslim mothers to exercise guardianship rights such as signing for the applications for their children’s school transfers, passports and surgeries. Muslim women can obtain a mutual divorce in a shorter time frame than before. Mothers are granted custody of their children more than before. However, there are still many more areas that can be improved. Others would require comprehensive reforms. Enforcement of payment for children’s maintenance is still a significant issue. 

Exercising the legal provisions upon application of polygamous marriages is another. Child marriage? We need to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 for all children of all faiths in Malaysia without exception; we also must ensure that they stay in school, are given vocational training and are educated on their sexual and reproductive health and much more. Addressing the children is not sufficient; their parents also need to be supported with concrete programmes that would address poverty-related issues and social stigma. 

While all of this involves better diligence and implementation by the various government and religious institutions, we also want a comprehensive reform of the legal framework for Islamic family laws, that recognises and acknowledges women and men as equals. It is possible to reform our laws to be better, to move with the times. Our societies have changed, and it’s about time that laws catch up with our lived experiences and realities. The continued disconnect between laws and our daily lives will only result in injustice. 

Your message to anyone for this International Women’s Day?
You have the power to make a difference and bring change. Don’t hesitate to raise your voice against any injustices you see in your daily life. Someone is taking inspiration and building their courage from seeing you do just that. 

Nadiah Hanim Abdul Latif

Nadiah Hanim Abdul Latiff

Nadiah Hanim Abdul Latif is a modern-day wonder woman with over 20 years of experience ranging from corporates to NGOs and humanitarian efforts. By day, she heads the strategy and programmes division at Yayasan Anak Bangsa Bisa, a foundation launched by the Indonesian multi-service platform Gojek in March 2020. The foundation, formed to help create more sustainable livelihoods for those who depend on daily income, offers timely assistance to those sharply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

On the side, Nadiah advocates for mothers, caregivers of children with special needs and vulnerable youths through numerous roles. An anchor with Bernama News Channel, she also serves as vice president of the Malaysian Rare Disorders Society. Nadiah is a regional representative for the Phelan-McDermid Syndrome Foundation, an assistant child protector for the Petaling District, and a Children’s Court advisor for Petaling Jaya. Last but certainly not least, she is the co-founder of OpiS International. 

Founded in 2018, OpiS International is an impact-driven enterprise committed to redefining the norms of work-life balance. OpiS hopes to build resilient families by developing opportunities for parents with young children to learn, work and play together. By providing specially designed workshops and training sessions for families and corporations, OpiS shapes great mothers and fathers who are also productive workers. 

Nadiah humbly admits that the enterprise would not have come to fruition without her fellow OpiS co-founders, Zarina and Azura Zainal. “OpiS started as an idea that sparked during a lunch conversation between three childhood friends,” she confesses. The trio of working mothers noticed a pattern of imbalance in gender stereotypes with career and family lives. “Often, our conversations would revolve around having to make sacrifices. For example, in pursuit of a successful career, one must sacrifice having a balanced family life,” Nadiah elaborates. Discontented about this reality, they went forth with OpiS. 

“We were fortunate to be selected to participate in the IDEA Accelerator Programme by MaGIC and somehow ended up as one of the top three social enterprises during graduation,” Nadiah says. The first cohort of OpiSmums comprised 60 women who were home-based childcare providers, trained to achieve the Kursus Asuhan Permata Taska Rumah nursing course. 

“The aim was to help them increase their household income and knowledge,” Nadiah explains. Extra modules were added on top of existing requirements, enabling these women to gain a more holistic education. “These mothers are still a part of our OpiS Community, and their resilience continues to inspire us. Since then, some have progressed to open childcare services, while others have branched into other enterprises during the pandemic.” 

Covid-19 turned work-life balance on its head, with many struggling to manage finances, cope with work stress and home school children. “What we thought was a phase has now become a new norm,” Nadiah says, indicating why parents need access to resources like OpiS, which pivoted towards online support in 2020. 

We wanted families to know that they are not alone. We worked alongside our partners to provide sessions on mental health, online schooling, the impact of lockdown on kids and parenting online. Other sessions focused on managing finances, maternal health and more.

Nadiah Hanim Abdul Latif

Later that year, OpiS also extended efforts to engage children and to inform adults that digital literacy is a widening gap in families. Many parents are still unaware of the dangers and are ill-equipped to monitor their children’s digital encounters, highlighting the need for guidance. 

Presently, OpiS reaches stakeholders through a modular three-part ecosystem, namely OpisTunity, OpiS Community and OpisKu. “OpisTunity is our learn-together arm, where we provide programmes from health and wellbeing to child rights and protection, alongside digital literacy,” Nadiah explains. Meanwhile, OpiS Community offers peer support online for all participants to continue to share their journey and offer encouragement to each other. “To date, we have multiple groups ranging from caregivers and early educators to working adults, parents and youths,” Nadiah details. 

OpisKu is an effort to work with employers to champion family-friendly work-life experiences. “Our dream was to set up a hub where parents can work, and children can be present in a safe space, to play and learn,” the co-founder explains. She cites that many established co-working spaces often cater to child-free working adults, limiting parents’ options. 

The OpiS co-working space now exists within the SS3 Creative Hub & Community Toy Library. “Half of the hub is a meeting and workspace, whilst the other is a quirky toy library. The back- end includes a counselling room and a play therapy space, which doubles up as a recording studio. It is also home to several impact partners committed to supporting healthy children and families,” Nadiah shares with pride. 

“With the pandemic, human interactions have catapulted online,” the advocate emphasises. Nadiah is confident that the next step for OpiS is continued digital expansion; to help families find better communication strategies while pushing to protect children online. “There is much work to be done and it is a great opportunity for humanity to come together and build back better.” 

Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri

Siti Aishah Prestige Malaysia

Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri strongly believes prevention is better than cure. The founder of the Spot (Soroptimist Puberty Organising Toolkit) champions the provision of comprehensive sexuality education for youths through age-appropriate and culturally sensitive approaches in the interest of preventing sexual abuse and exploitation. The Spot Community Programme encourages a positive attitude towards reproductive health, bodily autonomy, personal and social development. 

Increasing rates of underage sexual assault, minors engaging in sexual activities, unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and baby dumping among youths in Malaysia warrant effective action. “Children are one-third of our population and all of our future. We need to ensure our children are protected, educated and loved,” the Prestige 40 Under 40 alumna says. 

The young advocate implores Malaysians not to turn a blind eye but to know the laws and do their part. “Under the Child Act, reporting suspected physical or emotional abuse is mandatory if you are a doctor, family member or childcare provider. Failure to do so makes you liable for a fine of up to RM5,000 or imprisonment up to 2 years. As a Malaysian citizen, you are legally obliged to report child sexual abuse, including grooming, regardless of your relationship to the victim,” Aishah explains. 

While parents struggle to talk to their kids about sex, Aishah knows there is no room for discomfort in teaching children about consent and boundaries to avoid tragic outcomes. “I was a child in need of support, and so I make it my mission to make sure children get the help they need in my capacity as an educator and citizen. It is my duty to help,” she says, having launched Spot back in 2014. 

Aishah offers parents and guardians a crucial piece of advice to help keep children safe and raise resilient young people with self- respect. “Sexuality education is a life-long lesson that starts with simple concepts and builds over time as your child’s capacity to understand increases. It begins by laying the foundations with young children. Teach kids to learn to say no to things that make them uncomfortable and differentiate safe touches from unsafe touches,” she elaborates. 

“Your attitude with how you approach your children when discussing these topics matters so set the right tone,” Aishah tells parents. She notes the importance of getting educated and instilling family values with calmness, respect and an open manner. “Your children will ask questions, so you need to be prepared with answers. Make sure to let them know that they can always ask you anything and that they will not get in trouble, and you can make sure they are getting the right information,” she says. 

“With knowledge and the right attitude towards sexual and reproductive health and rights, young people are actively choosing to delay sexual intercourse and practise safe sex,” the advocate observes. Spot has developed teaching modules for boys, secondary school students and created thoughtful puberty education-related products to help children and parents. 

You need to tell people how you want to be treated. If someone does not listen to you when you say no, they are not worth your time or love. Walk away.

Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri

In 2020, Spot published Puberty Activity designed for children aged 9-12 that covers the basics of puberty. The eBook, available in English and Malay, explains basic anatomy, physical and emotional changes, hygiene routine tips, the importance of self-love, peer pressure, healthy relationship building skills and guidance on staying safe online. The lessons were derived from interactions with children engaged in Spot Community Programme sessions in schools between 2016 and 2019. 

Proceeds from eBook sales help run the Spot’s programmes, offered freely through the participation of volunteers. “A major challenge continues to be finding and retaining the talent required for Spot to keep growing, alongside bread-and-butter issues like funding and dealing with the effects of the pandemic,” Aishah admits. She hopes to inspire volunteers to step forward to contribute their time and skills. “Support us by sharing our social media content on your platforms,” she appeals. 

As a woman committed to supporting women, Aishah guides young women to learn to love themselves and protect their boundaries. “You need to tell people how you want to be treated. If someone does not listen to you when you say no, they are not worth your time or love. Walk away. Always remember that life is about being confident in making a series of good decisions. Learn how to make them. Your future self will love you for it,” she advises. 

The women in Aishah’s family life were significant sources of inspiration to her. “Both my grandmothers were my role models. One was a politician and the other a community organiser. One was a child-bride and the other illiterate. One was the wife of an army officer and the other a police officer. They were both amazing grassroots activists and had contributed so much to the communities they work with, with strong humility and audacious leadership skills,” Aishah says with pride. She is confident of her activism and the impact it has on raising the strong women of tomorrow. 

Izzana Salleh

An earnest conversation over coffee with eight other girlfriends from all corners of the globe – Uganda, Mexico, Uzbekistan, the United States, Iceland, Oman, India and China – made Izzana Salleh realise that irrespective of cultures and geographies, women continued to be underrepresented in leadership, be it politics or the corporate. The episode sparked the idea for the then Harvard Kennedy School master’s student to pursue a path that will “contribute positively to the gender equality cause,” as she puts it. Together they established Project Girls for Girls in 2017. Today, the international NGO aiming to help young women develop the courage, vision, and skills to take on public leadership has expanded to 23 countries and is still growing, with the Prestige Malaysia 40 Under 40 alumna enthusing that it is her way to “pay it forward.” Living by the motto “if not you, then who; if not now, then when?”, Izzana speaks to us about her organisation and the current state of women’s leadership. 

Do you still see women being held back from leadership roles? If so, in what ways and what are the contributing factors?
In short, yes. There are two main factors deemed as barriers to advancement in our leadership journey. 

The first being systemic issues. This refers to the “where and how” a woman can rise into leadership positions. These are political pathways, corporate ladders and any other journey women embark on in their work life. Career women, unlike career men, are constantly bound by the double burden syndrome of having to deliver well in both the workplace and at home. Women are not provided with an effective support system of childcare at the workplace, easier and/or more affordable methods to hiring home support such that that they can deliver equally well as the men at work. If we begin “handicapped” at the start of the “rat race,” we will be required to work twice if not three times harder to deliver the same results as a man who does not have the same home front obligations and expectations. This point is very much supported by the fact that most Malaysian women drop off the labour force around child- bearing age (30.87 years old) and do not return. 

The second obstacle would be cultural biases. In Malaysia, the various cultures practised here are still steeped in patriarchal values. It is 2021 and women’s success is still measured by their marital status, their finesse in the kitchen and the number of children they mother. Unfortunately, some women have had to sacrifice great opportunities because cultural biases do not support them pursuing it, however qualified they may be. 

I find that the patriarchal culture is the toughest barrier for women in leadership and an impossibly challenging mindset to shift if not for the courageous men and women who persist through the stigma. Many may say that these are just anecdotes. But here are some key statistics that demonstrate the little-to-no progress made in Malaysian female leadership thus far: 

According to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report Index Ranking 2020, Malaysia dropped three spots to be ranked 104th out of 153 countries. This index captures holistic data calculations across economic participation and opportunity (97), educational attainment (86), health and survival (84) and political empowerment (117). 

In 2021, we have 33 members of parliament (MPs) who are women, and while this is an absolute numerical increase, it is still a meagre 14% of MPs in parliament. A sad and far cry from the 48.6% of the female population in Malaysia. In 2019, Malaysia also ranked 143rd out of 190 countries on women’s representation in parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. 

Malaysians (either through political manifestos or agency targets) are also still speaking about achieving 30% female representation. By right, we should be pushing for the conversation to be about 50% (or more) representation to reflect true equality. The conversation begins first, then the actions will follow. 

Are there fears of women as leaders? 

There are no fears of women as leaders, but people are generally happy with the status quo. Until and unless we have enough people dissatisfied with the current unequal landscape, with sufficient will and power to make a change so great and deserving of its people, we will remain as is. 

Do you think women are lacking in any area in order for them to step into leadership? Women themselves are fully equipped with the skills, talent and perseverance to lead. They are, however, severely lacking in: 

• Policy support from the government, especially in the ease of access to childcare which would then give them the ability to rise to their full leadership potential.

• Being treated as equals by men at home or in the workspace (note: equal does not mean identical).

• A shift in cultural mindset by the older generation reflective of the values in this era. 

Do you think women make just as good a leader if not better? If so, what would be the reasons?
Generally, I would say that people are as good a leader as they put their minds to. A woman can be a strong leader; a man can be an empathetic leader. It is not gender dependent. It is dependent on the leader’s personality, values and sense of courage. 

However, there are some recent write-ups that indicate evidence of female leaders having performed better in navigating their nations through crisis, including the Harvard Business Review. It cites female leaders’ ability to deliver in crisis, i.e. the “glass cliff.” 

Post-Covid-19 peak, it was found that outcomes related to Covid-19, including the number of cases and deaths, were systematically better in countries led by women. I look forward to more research and data on this topic. It may be our way to finally smash the “glass ceiling.” 

Can you tell us what are some of Project Girls 4 Girls’ initiatives and what impacts have they created? How do you groom girls to aspire to be leaders of the future? 

At Project Girls for Girls, we run on three main pillars where we conduct mentorship circles, provide inspiration through the webinars/ journals/engagements produced and most importantly, the global network which connects all our mentors and mentees worldwide. Currently, we have various partnerships across universities, NGOs and corporations in our member countries. We have graduated approximately 3,000 girls and trained 450 mentors. 

Our impact is captured through growth in confidence and technical leadership skills (public speaking, negotiations, etc, of our mentees), as well as the testimony and the increase in mentors committing to the cause after having run through the cycle with us. In our experience, mentoring girls who have even a slight interest in leadership provides returns in multiple folds. Her confidence grows under the guidance of an experienced mentor, coupled with growth in skills and a tribe of sisters who cheer her on every time – she leaves the programme a different person with aspirations and an action plan to achieve her leadership goals! That one girl whose mindset and confidence has been changed, will make a difference in someone else’s world. And that matters greatly. 

Your message to anyone for this International Women’s Day?
My message for anyone who has aspirations, goals and dreams is simple but hopefully clear: “Go for it, and go for it today!” Staying true to your course for the next several years will provide the sweetest fruits to your labour. 

Dr. Jezamine Lim Iskander

Stepping into the room armed with a Duchenne smile, Dr Jezamine Lim Iskander is a self-professed people person with the unique ability to pull you into her pace. Without airs and graces, this driven personality lives by the philosophy of her hero Oprah Winfrey – you are responsible for your life. Doing the best at this moment, puts you in the best place for the next moment. 

A graduate of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia with a PhD in stem cells and tissue engineering, Jezamine shares that she was surprised to learn that she was the first female doctorate candidate in the field. But this determined mother of three was not satisfied to set a precedent without having more to show for it. “If you stop your work after six years and think your job is just to publish a journal and graduate with no follow up, it’s going to be a complete waste of time and money.” Being passionate about wanting to see research in healthcare sciences has a real-world impact, she acknowledges, “there has to be a change of mindset in young scientists and researchers that are coming out.” 

Jezamine’s strong views led her down the path of using her own medical and research experience to establish Cell Biopeutics Resources (CBR), a centralised and comprehensive hub for accessing global stem cell therapies on the market. “We will pioneer the frontier of producing, manufacturing and commercialising stem cell-related therapies or products upon successful completion of clinical trials,” she says. CBR aims to deliver mesenchymal stem cell derived treatment options for unmet medical needs such as regenerative diseases and anti-ageing therapeutic therapies. 

Proud of her effort, Jezamine puts into layman’s terms the aesthetic revolution of Cutisera, an anti-ageing skincare product commercialised by her company. “When they (researchers) culture cells, they have a medium. We usually discard this medium,” she says referring to the waste material of cultured human bone marrow stem cells. “These researchers collected this medium and found it contains proteins, growth factors, and something called cytokines in it which are good for your skin.” The first cellular product that’s been approved in 

Malaysia, Cutisera is said to enhance ageing skin by reducing fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots, evening skin tone while improving skin firmness and hydration. Currently sold out worldwide, she is working closely with the biotech company that developed Cutisera to develop a full range of products including cleanser, moisturiser and anti- ageing serum to be released in late September, barring obstacles. 

But beauty is only skin-deep, and Jezamine’s aspirations have always been to make a far more meaningful contribution to society. “I wanted to make a difference in the medical world. I want to serve but there are many ways to do it,” She says she hopes CBR and its collaborative partner will soon be able to proceed to conduct phase 4 clinical trials in Malaysia for the treatment of chronic limb ischaemia due to Buerger’s disease. A type of vasculitis that results in inflammation of small- and medium-sized arteries and veins in hands and feet, the narrowing of these blood vessels can result in damaged skin tissue, and in severe cases lead to gangrene that requires amputation. 

“I think that (giving patients hope) keeps me going,” Jezamine reflects as she points out that money does not drive her motivation. Aware of the enticement of greed in a billion-dollar industry, she has this piece of wisdom to share, “It’s essential to have people surrounding you whose ideals match yours. I would emphasise, only work with people with the same level of integrity, honesty and with strong moral principles. Forming a solid team with an aligned vision is important.” 

Not only is Jezamine invested in her business, but she also continues to serve as managing director of Harith Iskander’s V Day Productions as well as being the co-founder of The Joke Factory, a comedy club that has been operating in Publika Shopping Gallery since August 2018. Divulging that the path forward is not easy, Jezamine looks to the UK and US with respect for their established stand-up comedy culture and compares it to Malaysia. “It’s a new culture we’re starting and it’s a very niche business, and I think I’m driven towards businesses like this.” She confesses to being drawn to the challenge, adding that, “if it’s not going to be challenging, I’m going to get bored.” 

It’s a new culture we’re starting and it’s a very niche business, and I think I’m driven towards businesses like this. If it’s not going to be challenging, I’m going to get bored.

Dr. Jezamine Lim Iskander

A woman wearing many hats, Jezamine is steadfast when she says “my main role here is as a mother. It keeps me composed and grounded. At the end of the day, the reason why we do what we do is because of the children.” Mother to Zander Xayne Iskander, seven; Alessandrea Jayne Iskander, six; and Zydane Xayne Iskander, four, Jezamine is adamant about not letting her businesses interfere with giving her children a nurturing and supportive home to thrive in. “I’ve not used the word ‘busy’ with them,” she describes wanting her children to know that they have a parent who will always be accessible to them. 

She presents a united front with her supportive husband, ensuring that schedules are arranged to allow time to sit down with the children after school to do homework and discuss their experiences. “I want to know what’s happening in their lives, especially in school!” she exclaims, having recently learned of her eldest son’s growing interest in girls and emerging curiosity over where children come from. “When he throws questions like these at me, I say go and ask daddy,” she laughs, before quoting her son’s response, “Daddy said you are the science person; I should ask you!” While masterful in side- stepping the topic, she is still pleased to engage in dialogue with her children, to offer them guidance as they are exposed to new ideas and peer pressure. 

“I think bringing them up in an old-school way is very important,” Jezamine comments, detailing the responsibility her children have in packing their own schoolbags and learning to clean up after themselves. 

Characterising herself as a strict, disciplined woman, Jezamine describes her mother raising her without a sense of being limited by her gender. Enrolled in Taekwondo, she grew up participating in tournaments as a 10-year-old, she reminisces “It didn’t once hit me at that age, ‘oh, I’m the only girl here’,” Valuing that mindset, Jezamine is actively raising her daughter to chase after her dreams without inhibition. “I realised in the world out there, we do separate ourselves based on gender,” she goes on. “It starts from home, we will need to teach them at a very young age,” the power to free themselves from binary thinking is in their own hands.